Title: Norma Rae
Director: Martin Ritt
Harriet Frank Jr.
Music: David Shire
Cinematography: John A. Alonzo
Lee de Broux
Martin Ritt’s kitchen-sink drama NORMA RAE is my fourth entry of his filmography, it won Sally Field her first Oscar, and is reckoned as a shining specimen perfectly designed to gratify Awards recognition, aka “Norma Rae moment” for its actors, usually adapted from real events.
The movies takes place in a small town in North Carolina, based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton (1940-2009), our heroine Norma Rae (Field) is a single mother of two kids (one from the wedlock and the other is an illegitimate son borne out of a casual fling), now her husband is long dead, and she trysts with a married man but often got beaten due to the rife male chauvinism among the hillbillies, should audience judge her too? Is she a dimwit slut or a liberal-minded feminist? Wait and see, it actually contains a woman-empowering narrative arc which makes it stand out among its peers.
Norma Rae, and her parents (Hingle and Baxley), all work in their local cotton mill factory, receive minimum-wage and their poor working conditions are ignored by the management, life could be that for her, keeping working until her health deteriorates under the awful condition and kicks the bucket, then hopefully her children will be old enough to take her place in the factory, do the same job and continues the circle of life. But the arrival of Reuben Warshowsky (Leibman), a New York union organiser, galvanises her life and the prospect of forming a labor union beckons a possibly better future, so she is bent on functioning as Reuben’s right-hand man. Norma Rae also meets a fellow worker, Sonny (Bridges), a divorcé with a young daughter, and soon they form a family, but her whole-hearted devotion to the ongoing campaign for the union engenders clashes with the management of the factory, and she has to be crucified for the progressive cause when the antagonism reaching its boiling point. The Union wins in the end, but Norma Rae loses her job and Reuben leaves when his mission is achieved, will her future become better afterwards, the film doesn’t reveal any detail, but a reconciliation with Sonny bespeaks at least no marital disruption will occur.
Sally Field, injects such a redoubtable force in her acting, like Reuben patronisingly tells her, she is too good for the place, one can totally get impressed by her punchy effort in every line, gesture and expression, which transcends Norma Rae from an ordinary gal to a highly relatable and extremely likeable cinematic heroine, that’s the reason why we love to see these stories being told again and again on the screen. The script carefully treads the camaraderie between Norma Rae and Reuben, to avoid any scandals, but Leibman’s Reuben, in the meaty supporting role, should be an equally likeable character, doesn’t register the same impact, wanting of sincerity in his acting could be the culprit, whereas Beau Bridges’ Sonny and Pat Hingle’s Vernon, Norma Rae’s father, both cast more weight in their much leaner screen-time.
NORMA RAE is a juggernaut success, receives four Oscar nominations (including the prestigious BEST PICTURE) and wins two (Field’s BEST LEADING ACTRESS and David Shire’s theme song IT GOES LIKE IT GOES, beautifully sung by Jennifer Warnes), the relevance of labor union has ebbed away since then, but it definitely sparks off a neo-realistic trend for American indie films, with real-life location and tapping into the misery of low-class people which average cinema-goers consider too harrowing to watch on the silver screen, in retrospective, it is something we should praise for!